Minnesota football preview for 2016, including keys to success for the Gophers, best players and season prediction.
What You Need To Know About The Minnesota Offense
Offensive coordinator Jay Johnson isn’t going to stray too much for the normal Minnesota formula, but the attack should revolve more around Mitch Leidner and a passing game that didn’t really show up last season.
The offense finished 103rd in the nation overall and lacked the normal bruising power from the running game. Throw in the lack of gamebreaking ability from the passing attack, and there was a big problem consistently coming up with points. Leidner has an experienced receiving corps to work with, but is there anyone any good to make defenses care?
The running game should be more effective with Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith a solid sophomore tandem, but the line needs to come together fast around Jonah Pirsig at one tackle spot. It’ll take the fall camp to wait on a few JUCO transfers to see just how good the front five can be.
Biggest Key To The Minnesota Offense
Run the ball, generate first downs, score – duh. Yeah, it’s a good thing when an offense scores points – something Minnesota didn’t do very well last season – but as long as the ground game starts working again, it should be good enough to get by in most games. The Gophers went 5-0 when running for 150 yards or more, and was 1-7 when it didn’t, only getting by lowly Kent State 10-7 when running for 107 yards. Over the last three seasons, Minnesota is 15-1 when running for 200 yards or more.
What You Need To Know About The Minnesota Defense
It was a terrific year for a Gopher defense that had one of its best secondaries in a long time, but now there’s plenty of big changes to come after losing most of the key parts.
Getting Damarius Travis back from injury is a big help for a group that lost three good starters. It’ll take a rotation of bodies to fill in the gaps, but they’re going to need help from a pass rush that lost two of its top three sackers in De’Vondre Campbell and Theiren Cockran.
Scott Ekpe needs to be healthy and back to form on the inside of the line to lead a front four full of upperclassmen. This wasn’t the most disruptive line before, and now it needs to be terrific considering green corners.
Cody Poock and Jack Lynn are productive veteran linebackers, but it’s a relatively thin group that needs help from some newcomers to be up to Big Ten snuff.
Biggest Key To The Minnesota Defense
Stop the run. Minnesota isn’t that hard to figure out. If it runs the ball well, and it stops the run, it wins. Again, when the Gophers hit the 200-yard mark on the ground, they’ll almost certainly pull off the win. It’s the same thing for the other side, going 0-6 when allowing 180 rushing yards or more and was 6-1 when allowing fewer. With an offense that isn’t going to score in bunches, taking control of the game on the defensive side and getting off the field is a must.
Minnesota Will Be Far Better If …
It does all the basics right. When Minnesota came a game away from winning the Big Ten West title in 2014, it was 15th in the nation in turnover margin, dominated the time off possession stat, didn’t commit a slew of penalties, and were on the right side of special teams battles more often than not.
Last season, the Gophers had the ball for just 29 minutes per game, stunk in the return game, couldn’t score touchdowns when in the red-zone, and was lousy when it came to winning the turnover battle. Again, the Gophers aren’t going to blow up offensively, so they have to be air-tight on all the little things.
Best Minnesota Offensive Player
QB Mitch Leidner, Sr. – No, he hasn’t been the starting quarterback since the Bernie Bierman era, but it just seems like it. Now he’s the veteran starter who began to carry the team on his shoulders at times last season, and now should be an even bigger factor with the experience to go along with the size, mobility, and upside to do even more. Don’t be shocked if he’s not the best quarterback in the Big Ten, or at least close to it.
Best Minnesota Defensive Player
S Damarius Travis, Sr. – Can he be back and ready to roll after suffering a season-ending hamstring injury early on? Two years ago he was one of the Big Ten’s best defensive backs coming up with 61 tackles, and he should be an even bigger run thumper for a defense that needs them. At the very least, he’ll be a steady factor in a secondary that needs reinforcements.
Key Player To A Successful Season
DT Scott Ekpe, Sr. – The 6-4, 290-pounder got hurt last year and was a key loss off the run defense that was fine, but could’ve been a lot more consistent. Back from his leg injury, he could be the anchor up front to help out the rebuilding defensive front. Getting a big year from his brother, Hendrick, from his starting spot on the end would be nice, too.
The Minnesota Season Will Be A Success If …
It’s a nine-win campaign. That might be a way-lofty goal for a program that hasn’t been able to bust through the eight-win ceiling since going 10-3 in 2003 – and that was the only season with more than eight victories since 1905. But this could be a sneaky-good team with an improved offense and a coaching staff good enough to get the most out of the average defensive talent.
The non-conference schedule is easy, and with games against Maryland, Rutgers, Illinois, Purdue and Northwestern, the Gophers should be able to get close to the pin, especially with a win over …
Oct. 1 at Penn State. – Oregon State, Indiana State, Colorado State. That’s the first month of the season, and if Minnesota is hoping to be any good, it has to be 3-0 without breathing too hard. At Maryland, Rutgers, at Illinois, Purdue – those are the four games after going to Happy Valley. It won’t happen – Minnesota isn’t that good – but if it can upset the Nittany Lions, they might have a shot at being this year’s Iowa and start out 8-0 before going to Nebraska.
2015 Minnesota Fun Stats
– First Quarter Scoring: Opponents 75 – Minnesota 37
– Red-Zone Touchdown % – 53% (19-of-36 trips)
– Punt Return Average: Opponents 10.2 yards – Minnesota 3.5 yards